Sara Dee brings a fresh voice to the songs of Johnny Cash at the Hermosa Saloon on Friday night. Photo by Priscilla Witte.
Sara Dee doesn’t look much like the Man in Black. The youthful songstress and California native is petite, blond and has a face that looks like it belongs on a greeting card.
But this musical force can belt out a Johnny Cash song with the power and grit to earn the respect of the country legend’s toughest fans. She brings her Cash tribute back to the Hermosa Saloon this weekend.
“My sound has been called ‘feisty folk,’” Dee said. “It’s not quite folk and not quite jazz.”
Dee’s voice is sultry, rich and sweet. It sounds like a hybrid of Patsy Cline and Madeleine Peyroux. Despite her talent, she didn’t fancy herself a professional musician until recently.
“I studied music therapy in college,” said Dee. “I never thought I would be a performing musician. I started playing at Saint Rocke when they opened and got into it more. Then in 2011 I finally put out an album.”
Her debut, “In Joy” was released on Dee’s birthday. The album was a collaboration of South Bay bred musicians and recorded at the Sea Palace Studio in Rancho Palos Verdes.
Meanwhile Dee has continued to practice music therapy through the Play Music company in Hermosa Beach which hosts programs that use music to address social skills, physical skills, cognitive and language development, and emotional and spiritual needs. In 2007, she started “Musical Mondays” at the Redondo Beach Public Library. On the first Monday of every month, Dee hosts a family music program at the main branch that has become the library’s highest attended program ever.
“It started with about 12 families,” she said. “Now it has grown to about 80 people every month. And it’s great for the library because it increases circulation.”
Dee started covering Johnny Cash songs when she was performing regularly at Hudson House in Redondo Beach. When the restaurant first opened it had an entertainment license, and Dee found that Cash songs went over well with the crowd. When Hudson House stopped hosting music, Dee sought out other South Bay venues to play.
“The Hermosa Saloon is kind of a musician’s gem,” she said. “I don’t know how I had never played there. I thought, ‘Their crowd doesn’t know my name, but everyone knows Johnny Cash.’”
Dee got a group of local musicians together and played a Johnny Cash tribute at the Saloon in November. Joining her was Debo on drums, Barclay Roach on guitar and vocals and Graham Chapman on bass and vocals. It was wildly successful.
“It was packed,” she said. “I think we probably got some extra attention because it a little different. I play guitar and ukulele. And I sing plenty of Cash songs, myself, as well as June Carter parts.”
Dee’s favorite Cash tune to perform is “Jackson.” She sings as June Carter and local musician Humble Harry takes over as Johnny.
“Humble Harry plays Johnny Cash songs regularly,” said Dee. “At our show in November he asked if he could get up on a song with us. We weren’t taking strangers up there. But someone vouched for him so he got up there and killed it.”
Friday’s show will include over 30 Cash and Carter songs, about half sung by Dee. Other notable tunes will be “I Walk the Line,” “Ain’t No Grave,” Daddy Sang Bass,” “Long Black Veil” and “I’ve Got Stripes.”
“I’ll be singing as many Johnny Cash parts as the guys,” said Dee. “And the Saloon crowd is so fun. It’s going to be a very dance-y and sing-a-long-y type of night. I love a crowded bar and country outlaw shenanigans.”
Join the ruckus and hear Johnny Cash and June Carter played by Sara Dee and friends on Friday, February 21 at 9 p.m. at the Hermosa Saloon, 211 Pacific Coast Highway in Hermosa Beach. Free admission.